Lever Guns Of Our Grandfathers

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Generations of reliability and use

There were at least 80 caribou scattered across the valley floor. Five mature bulls were bedded right out in the open. Their dark antlers, clearly visible above the short willows, gave us a constant reference point as we slowly worked our way closer. Knee-deep snow, and alder tangles so thick we had to belly crawl through them, slowed our stalk.

We had just reached the edge of the large meadow when one of the bulls got up to stretch. My wife quickly settled in behind her pack, while I made sure the area behind the bull was clear. Seconds after my “all clear,” she made a great 220-yard shot. Once again, my grandfather’s old 300 Savage had proven itself in the field.

My wife and I were hunting mountain caribou in the southeast Yukon. We had timed our hunt to coincide with the herd’s short migration north to their winter range. An early winter storm hit the mountains two days before our arrival and had the caribou on the move. We saw dozens of the large-bodied animals daily.

Two days after my wife took her bull, it was my turn and I was lucky enough to harvest my largest caribou to date with another rifle from the past. One shot from an old 30-30 Winchester, manufactured in 1921, anchored the big herd bull.

I’ve always had an affinity for older rifles, especially older lever-action rifles. They offer faster follow up shots, are usually shorter and lighter than a bolt action and most point like a fine shotgun. The first lever-action rifle to receive a patent was the Volition Repeating Rifle, designed by Walter Hunt in 1848. While only a few of these rifles were ever produced, the idea of a repeating rifle operated by a lever was born. The Winchesters, Marlins and Savages that followed were immensely popular for more than a century.

Like most hunters from my generation, my first big game rifle was a gift from my grandfather. Gracefully worn from decades of use, the rifle was a Savage Model 99, chambered in 300 Savage.

Anemic by today’s standards, the 300 Savage was designed to outperform the 30-30 Winchester and approximate 30-06 ballistics. This enabled hunters to tackle large-bodied game out to generous ranges with a light, fast-handling lever action. The ballistics, coupled with the ability to use spritzer bullets in the Model 99’s rotary magazine, cemented the Savage Model 99’s popularity with hunters on three continents.

My first experience with the 300 Savage came one afternoon during a late-season moose hunt. My dad and I were working our way along the edge of a large willow flat when suddenly, up ahead, we heard the telltale sounds of a bull rubbing his antlers. One low cow moan from dad and we could hear the bull start in our direction. The little bull stepped out of the willows not 50 yards from our position, offering me a perfect broadside shot. One bullet from the old Savage and I had my first moose.

With all the new rifles and calibres that are currently available, it is easy to forget just how effective and efficient the older calibres our grandfathers used really are. Two generations of hunters went into the field each season armed with calibres that generated far less energy than most of the rifles used today. They successfully harvested everything from polar bears to white-tailed deer with calibers like the 30-30 Winchester and 300 Savage.

Since its introduction in 1895, the 30-30 has been the most prolific cartridge ever used in the Canadian bush. From the prairies to the high Arctic, this cartridge has, without doubt, accounted for more game animals than any other.

One of the most common misconceptions about lever-action rifles is that they are too inaccurate to hunt with. Nothing could be further from the truth. One of the best hunters I have ever known used the same old Model 94 Winchester 30-30 for 40 years. A respected member of the West Moberly First Nations in northern British Columbia, Maxi Desjarlais was also the finest marksman I have ever seen. Even in his later years, Maxi would make tough shots look easy.

I once watched Maxi hit a wounded bear three times, as fast as he could work the lever. My cousin had wounded the big black bear half an hour before we spotted him going across a large meadow, 200 metres away. Maxi’s offhand shots all found their mark and put the bear down quickly. Another time I witnessed Maxi shoot a trotting coyote at a distance we later paced off at 180 metres. Like a lot of hunters from the last generation, he understood that accuracy is far more important than energy when it comes to harvesting game.

In many hunting situations, a well-balanced lever gun will produce better accuracy than their bolt-action counterparts. Still-hunting through thick cover, where shots will be close and happen fast, is one example.

In the bush country of northern BC, when I grew up, this style of hunting was still quite common. Slipping quietly through the poplar flats with the wind in your face and the sun at your back was a very rewarding way to hunt.

A favourite method of the older hunters I apprenticed under was to target prime bedding areas. When I was finally old enough to go along, I remember being amazed at how an animal the size of a bull moose could be so hard to see. Often only the tip of an antler or an ear would be visible above the thick bush. Like a whitetail, those moose would remain anchored to their bed until the last minute. When they finally busted, things happened rather quickly. The lever actions my grandfathers used were perfect in these situations.

Over the years I have acquired a small collection of vintage lever-action rifles. The old 300 Savage, a 444 Marlin, a Model 88 Winchester in pristine condition and a very early Winchester Model 94, chambered in the venerable 30-30, are four of the finest hunting rifles I own. While all shoot well, the Model 88 will shoot the tightest groups. Chambered in 308 Winchester, the little 88 is the perfect companion for those high alpine hunts where the ground is steep and the shots can be long. A Williams aperture sight doesn’t affect the superb balance or clean lines, yet squeezes every bit of accuracy out of the old gun.

While the light 30-calibre, lever-action rifles are not as popular as they once were, the same cannot be said for the big bores. The 45-70 and the 444 Marlin have, if anything, become more popular over the last 20 years, especially among guides. The big bullets these two heavy weights send down range have enough energy for the largest game. This extra horsepower can make all the difference in grizzly country.

Last season my son was forced to use his Marlin in one of the most unnerving situations anyone is likely to encounter in the backcountry. James, two other guides and three bow hunters were playing cards one night after supper when they heard something outside the cabin. Thinking a porcupine must be trying to burrow under the building, James opened the door to shoo it away.

Bright light from the lantern illuminated the area in front of the small cabin as the door swung open. There, just feet away, stood a large, mature grizzly bear. Instead of running away, the big bear immediately lunged forward. James got the door closed just seconds before the big boar slammed into it, shaking the whole cabin. Guides and hunters spent a sleepless night as the old bear kept trying to get in. Numerous times they were successful at driving the bear off by banging on pots and yelling at the top of their lungs, but the bear kept coming back.

James knew the bear was hurt, starving, or both, and extremely dangerous. Since it is illegal to hunt while guiding, he waited until morning when he could use the satellite phone to call the authorities. They authorized him to shoot the bear at the earliest opportunity. He didn’t have to wait long. One heavy bullet from the old Marlin quickly ended a long, tense standoff.

While two generations of hunters have proven that the original ballistics of these old guns are perfectly adequate, recent advances in propellants and bullet technology have taken their performance to levels our grandfathers would have never dreamed possible. Factory ammunition like Hornady’s LEVERevolution and Superformance were specifically designed to extend the useful range of the older lever actions.

With more seasons in my past than in my future, I still have a soft spot for the old lever-action rifles I inherited from my grandfathers. The oldest, a Winchester Model 94, came off the assembly line in 1921. The bluing is all but gone, and although original, the wood is chipped and scratched from a zillion miles of bush. That old rifle has two lifetimes worth of hunts behind it now and still functions flawlessly. That’s pretty good mileage for a rifle made 93 years ago.

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